She was only seventeen, a slender slip of a girl, with hardly enough height and width for a man to notice, especially if she shaded the lights in snappy black eyes fringed with sooty lashes. Her determination was a little harder to hide as she stepped carefully, quickly, down the path through the back kitchen garden. She wished to attract no attention, so she silently unlocked and relocked the gate, tucking the big iron key securely in the folds of the scarf wound round her waist; she needed her hands free. Usually the firm stamp of her sturdy shoes sounded a pattering on the soft bricks of the alley, but this afternoon she placed each foot softly as she sped along the well-known lanes. Her plans were made, and it would take more than the Fourteenth Ohio National Guard, enforcing proclamations of Martial Law by the Mayor and Governor confining residents to their homes, to keep her from meeting her John.
Ellen and John were young and in love and life was hard for these two Irish immigrants. “Going into service” was honest and respectable even if few coins could be saved toward a future. She was grateful that her cousin had been able to get her on helping with the laundry for a wealthy family, room and board included. She was an even better cook than ironing girl, but that position was too high for her to aspire to, not just yet anyway. She was willing to do the hard work and put up with the long hours if it meant that she and John could hope for a life together and place of their own someday. John was serving an apprenticeship in a cobbler shop under her two older brothers known as fair, but hard, masters; he had no time to call his own. Her terms were a little easier and she had every other Sunday afternoon off. John and Ellen had made plans to meet ‘on the sly’ late this Tuesday during the masters’ supper hour, and meet him she would.
All of the girls working in the large family house in Clifton were well aware of the troubles in the City that had intensified during the past week. Ever since war had been declared, there had been soldiers drilling and marching. They heard the inflammatory headlines called out by energetic newsboys selling their “EXTRAS.” Just earlier this week, there were skirmishes at Mt. Vernon and Paris, Kentucky. Rumor said that General Scott had only 1500 men, 300 pieces of artillery and 20,000 men to defend Cincinnati; there had been a major surrender at Clarksville, 152 Union men outmatched by 800 Rebs. The master of the house was a lawyer with an office downtown, and talked with the business community over what it would mean if southern troops continued to move closer. Nothing was ever discussed at the family table when the serving girls were in the room, but they knew that War was the main topic of discussion in the formal dining room here and in every wealthy home in the City as well as at the servants’ table. Meetings of Fourth Street bankers and lawyers, prayers by congregations at churches and synagogue, drawing-room assemblies, afternoon teas, and gossipings over laundry tubs and kitchen work tables were all dominated by talk of war, the military, state’s rights and slave’s rights. Only the Ohio River separated Ohio, a free state, from Kentucky, a slave state. It was a busy river. Steam ships carried passengers down from Pittsburgh and up from St. Louis; barges laden with merchandise came and went all day long. As it was the end of the summer, the river was low, running only 12 feet in channel at Pittsburgh, certainly not much hindrance to an army determined to march into Ohio.
That morning of September 2, 1862, Ellen duly listened to the mistress as she gave instructions to the staff, cautioning and warning. Curfew was 6:00PM, and while the Mayor might have the force of police and militia to back up his words, the master had his own enforcement: threat of loss of position. 6:00PM curfew was absolute. Ellen bent her head; there was no outward sign of protest. But her cousin, standing next to her, heard the quick intake of breath, saw the lips snap shut and the back stiffen. “Now Ellen, you wouldn’t be planning to do something contrary, now would you?” she whispered pleadingly, thinking of her own position. Black eyes shot a withering glance at Cousin Susannah as Ellen whispered back, “Now what would you think?”
Ellen glared at that oppressive, sultry sky. After weeks of warm sunny days, the heat was breaking; she could see rain showers moving across the lower city. So much the better for her purpose she thought. She had hoped to get away sooner, but felt it better to bide her time patiently until the shortening fall daylight dimmed. Attention was on preparation for the early evening meal before it was safe to duck out. She scurried along making up lost time, but discreet as she was, a sentry spied her and called, “Halt.” Of course she halted. This young soldier was no different from any other young man she had outwitted. She spun a tale of a dutiful daughter who had taken her mother to a place of safety and was now returning to her situation. A tremulous sigh asking an unspoken request for safe passage was all that was necessary for him to give her a brief shake, a nod and a quick “Get on with you then, and mind, go straight home.” Her eyes shone her thanks — but she continued down Fairview hill on her way to meet John.
She peered ahead cautiously, quite used to scrambling down the steep hill to a certain shop which fronted on the north side of the Canal. After all, it was on a trip to this shop with instructions to these cobblers that she had met John. Good leather work was always needed in a big household. Walking shoes, riding boots, dancing pumps, overshoes, carpet slippers all needed to be re-soled, and driving whips, hatbox straps, reins and riding tack needed attention from time to time. Ellen had volunteered to take the orders to the cobblers’. The first time, the master had not been present at the shop, but John had known well enough how to take care of such an important customer. He had also been quick to let the lovely young girl bringing the order know his appreciation of her. Ellen was pleased with his attention, and from then on, offered to clamber down the steep hill to place orders. Both young people were decisive, quick-thinkers. They made the most of the few minutes they could snatch together. Flirting had turned to friendship; liking had grown to love; promises had been considered; tonight the engagement was to be formalized.
Meeting the sentry made Ellen change her route. Gone was the usually friendly early evening traffic. Not a surrey or a buggy was in sight, nor carts or wagons; no riders on horseback nor families out strolling; not even the horse car was to be seen. Order for martial law had required every able-bodied man to repair to his ward with weapon and ammunition. At some wards, there was order as the men registered and formed into military companies, learning to drill together and work as a unit. At other wards, there was pandemonium as aides and orderlies dashed about with conflicting orders, and men, maybe 1000 of them in a well-settled ward, reported for duty but did not know what was required of them. At a 6th street ward, one civilian whet his sword on the stone doorstep, solemn faced, blade glistening. Citizens assembled at street corners during the day; policemen walked their horses with drawn bayonets. Sounds of fife and drum and marching feet echoed; there was a strange lack of everyday normal sounds, appalling to the timid.
Not wanting to be noticed, Ellen was glad rain clouds blotted out sky light as she scrambled down a short-cut. Most times she could see John standing at the back door, anxiously waiting and concerned that his master was not watching him too closely. This afternoon he was not there, nor seem inside. In fact, the shop door was standing open, something the cobblers had never, ever, done in the past.
Common sense said John was being extra vigilant, but her quick anger surfaced; she had taken such chances and would not be ‘stood up’. She heard a fiercely muttered “Psst!”, and saw him, crouched down under the long workbench. She threw herself in his arms, both of them on their knees in snippets of leather on the damp earth. He sighed. He had hoped she wouldn’t take the risk of coming — he wanted to see her anyway — he thought she should have stayed in when instructed by her mistress and ordered by the Mayor, the Governor and Federal troops — he knew she wouldn’t listen — would come regardless. She was what she was: she was his Ellen, and God help both of them.
Their time together was too valuable to be wasted. They had been lucky in the harness shop as fires that had spread to nearby businesses in the aftermath of war fever had not caught them. John’s master was out now arranging his enlistment in the Civilian Guard and deferment as a supplier of military goods. His return was imminent. John took a fine-tooled, small leather pouch from his pocket and from it drew forth his surprise gift, a slender gold ring set with the smallest of stones, glowing as red as the now-clearing twilight sky. Lovingly he placed it on her finger; their eyes alone spoke the promises of love to come. He then took the ring off and knotted it onto a braided leather cord which he placed around her neck. Time now only for a few words and kisses, one last embrace, and then his own brand of charm convinced Ellen that she had best be getting back, up the hill and home.
Hiking back was frightening. The after-glow of fires could still be seen in the darkening evening; the heavy smell of smoke was alarming; the damp leaves and turf still smoldered in places. Of course, she had no watch to tell her whether the curfew hour had come. She could hear the frantic neighing of horses stabled near the burned shops and hear the barking of family dogs doing their duty of warning householders of strangers. She had to be careful of her footing on this secret path now that daylight was gone and the hill was slick from the passing rain shower. Her mind was busy spinning a story she could tell at the house to account for her absence when she stepped into a circle of light flickering around a small camp fire. Too late, she realized that sentries had been double posted: she ran right into one.
They looked at each other, recognized each other. He was the same soldier she had met earlier. But this time he would not be charmed and did not intend to let her get away. He gripped her arm firmly, intent on dragging her to the sergeant in charge. In exasperation, he spoke just one word, “Why?” Ellen proudly drew the supple cord from behind the high collar of her dress. The little ring glittered scarlet and gold in the firelight. “Tonight’s the night set for our betrothal, and we were to make our promises. He gave me this ring, don’t you see? Nothing is more important.”
The sentry shook his head, wished he were John, and let her go. With a wink, he pushed her along to safety and her dreams.